Nick Nortier: ‘A lot of my work is inspired by the natural world and our connection to it’

We talk to US illustrator and muralist Nick Nortier about how he got started as an artist, what led him into mural making and why Affinity Designer for iPad has become an integral tool in his creative process.
Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started as an artist.

When I was in grade school my friends and I used to draw silly cartoons every chance we had. There was one year that I went to my friend Mark’s every day after school. We would collect cans and return them for deposit, then use the money to buy comics. We’d go back to his house and draw the characters from them, which is pretty much how it all started.

Wildflower by Nick Nortier
Where did your business name Old Growth Creative come from?

It comes from the admiration of old-growth forests and the reverence that comes from seeing something existing in the natural world that hasn’t been altered by human hands. Due to deforestation these forests are increasingly rare and symbolise a need for us to protect our planet and the life that is here.

What made you specialise in mural-making?

In my younger years, I was into graffiti and painting stencils, which eventually led to mural painting. It’s a lot of fun to be able to transform a space and bring it to life. I’m especially drawn to painting in public spaces because it makes art accessible to anyone who walks by and it allows people who wouldn’t normally go to a gallery a chance to appreciate art.

When I was a kid there was a mural of a giant butterfly, probably 30’ tall, which was placed super high on a four-story building downtown. It absolutely blew my mind and I was so excited anytime that I was able to see it. The fact that I have such a vivid memory of it speaks to the power of public art. I hope that my work can, in turn, inspire other people and instil a sense of wonder.

“I’m especially drawn to painting in public spaces because it makes art accessible to anyone who walks by and it allows people who wouldn’t normally go to a gallery a chance to appreciate art.”

You have a mural displayed on the concourse at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. What is the process for designing, producing and installing something so large?

The mural at the airport began with a pencil drawing, as do most of my murals. I typically draw or print the layout of the wall multiple times and then sketch out quick concepts. Once I have a concept that I like, I’ll do an additional drawing or two and make it as finished as possible before I bring it into the digital realm.

Using Affinity Designer for the iPad, I use the pencil and pen tool to ink the drawing and work out possible colour schemes. When it comes to transferring the image onto the wall, I’ll either use a projector, draw freehand, or use a doodle grid. Having a vector drawing really helps when it comes to projecting because the image will display cleanly on the wall.

“Painting at the airport was particularly crazy because I had to be certified and badged by the airport police since I was working past TSA security every day. Additionally, I was working on this when the pandemic hit and airline traffic there dropped 97%.”

Painting at the airport was particularly crazy because I had to be certified and badged by the airport police since I was working past TSA security every day. Additionally, I was working on this when the pandemic hit and airline traffic there dropped 97%. It was a rather surreal experience and I pulled an all-nighter to finish it the day that Michigan’s stay at home executive order went into effect.

You also illustrate digitally. What is your usual process for creating a digital piece of work?

My process for working digitally is similar to that of my mural work; everything starts with a pencil drawing. I’ll then scan or photograph my drawing, bring it into Affinity, and begin the vector process. I know a lot of people skip regular paper altogether in favour of digital, but I love the feeling of pencil on paper too much to give it up. The combo of traditional and digital is how I achieve some of my favourite pieces. I do a lot of screen print work as well and always produce it digitally first in order to achieve the crispest image possible.

Wildflower screen prints
What inspired you to start using Affinity Designer? And what features do you use the most/find most useful?

I was working on a concept for a mural project a couple of years ago and was trying to create a fairly simple abstract composition and became incredibly frustrated with other design programs on the iPad and their limited capabilities. I had spent almost all day trying to digitally produce what was in my brain but what I had come up with just wasn’t working. A friend of mine recommended Affinity to me and within the hour I was able to produce what I had been trying to do all day. I’ve been using it ever since and recommend it to every creative I know.

The tools that I find the most useful are the pen and pencil tools. Having the ability to customise the line weight and thickness in different points of a line is my favourite feature of any digital program I’ve ever used. Since a lot of my work is outline based, I absolutely love this feature and use it literally every time I open the program.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?

I’m currently working on a 23’ x 140’ mural at a marina in Spring Lake, MI. It’s the largest mural I’ve ever done and by far the most time-consuming. It took almost five days just to mask and prime everything and it has been relatively difficult to paint on aluminium siding but it’s also been a fun challenge thus far.

I’m also working on vectoring a drawing that I did almost five years ago for a t-shirt design but have never finished due to client work and other projects. This is the other thing I love about Affinity: the ability to work anywhere. I will occasionally have personal projects with no specific deadline that I chip away at here and there. Affinity allows me to get so much work done during idle times like car rides. Even if it’s just a half-hour worth of work, it adds up and has allowed me to complete projects that I normally wouldn’t have had the time to sit down and do.

“Affinity allows me to get so much work done during idle times like car rides. Even if it’s just a half-hour worth of work, it adds up and has allowed me to complete projects that I normally wouldn’t have had the time to sit down and do.”

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

A lot of my work is inspired by the natural world and our connection to it. It’s easy to forget that we as humans are part of nature ourselves. I also do a bit of political work, which is inspired by the crazy way in which America is being run right now. The United States is in crisis mode and a lot of people are being negatively affected by the current administration. My piece “Migration Is Not A Crime” is a reflection of the terrible immigration policies that are tearing families apart. The good majority of people that immigrate to the U.S. are searching for a better life for themselves and their families and we need to love our neighbours, not treat them like criminals.

What is the creative scene like in Michigan?

The creative scene in Michigan is pretty amazing. Grand Rapids, where I’m from, has a great community of artists from different backgrounds. The mural scene in GR has been exploding these past few years and it’s been great to see new artists continuously landing jobs and getting work out there. After Dark is in its second year as a mural festival, which has given opportunities to so many people. There are mural festivals and art events happening all over; Battle Creek, Lansing, Flint, Jackson, and of course Detroit. The art scene in Detroit is like none other; there are so many awesome things happening all the time and I make the trek as often as I can.

What would be a dream commission for you?

A dream commission would be to land some really tall murals, like eight stories or so. There are a couple of buildings in particular that I’ve been daydreaming about for years. The butterfly that I mentioned has been painted over for years now and it would be awesome to land that wall, it would bring it full circle. I’ve also been working on an initiative to get murals painted on recycling trucks in GR in order to encourage recycling and make something as mundane as a big truck look beautiful. The mayor loves the idea and I met with the city manager earlier this year and I was on track to make it happen but then covid hit and priorities shifted. In 2021 I would like to pick up where I left off. It’s one of those side projects that I’ve been plugging away at piece by piece for years and it’s so close to happening.

What has been your biggest achievement as an artist so far?

My biggest achievement would be the mural at the airport. It was pretty unreal and I’m unbelievably grateful for the opportunity. This current mural at the marina is one of my biggest achievements as well. It’s such a massive space to paint and I’m excited that I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I’m able to tackle a project this large.

Do you have any advice for artists just getting into the game?

Believe in yourself and keep trying and keep pushing no matter what. There are times when you’re going to fail but it’s important to remember that failure can lead to growth. Create and make work as often as you can and push yourself to keep improving and remember that this takes time. I’ve been self-employed as an artist for around five years but I’ve been working at this goal for over a decade. If the opportunity you’re looking for isn’t there, do what you can to create it. And again, never give up!


To see more of Nick’s amazing work check out his website oldgrowthcreative.com and follow him on Instagram.